The 17th-century poet George Herbert has never commanded the popularity of his more obviously stellar peer, John Donne. Yet Herbert's acute and luminous examination of the inner life and his subtle disquisitions on the vicissitudes of the human spirit has made him a favourite of many distinguished minds, among them TS Eliot, the philosopher mystic Simone Weil and our contemporary theologian poet, Rowan Williams.
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Thanks to John Drury's excellent new book, modern sensibilities may rediscover in Herbert's homely imagery and laconic language an aesthetic which chimes with our own.
For Weil the poem known as "Love III" (Herbert never titled his own poems) was "the most beautiful poem in the world", and Drury places this extraordinary work at the heart of his subject's endeavour. Love infuses Herbert's creative work, and, what came to be his life's work, that of a humble parson. This is not the erotic love of Donne's secular verse but the profounder love between the spirit or soul and the Divinity, what early Christians, taking their term from Greek, called "agape".
Herbert's emphasis on love ensures his meditations seem not too narrowly God-centred, though this in a larger sense is what the poems are all about. Drury astutely comments that if one were to substitute "God" for "Love" in the opening lines of "Love III", "Love bad me welcome but my soul drew back/ Guilty of dust and sin", the effect would be altogether different. As it is, this modest-seeming account of a reluctant guest and a generous and genial host becomes an extraordinary metaphor for Christ's sacrifice and the Christian communion that celebrates it. I owe to Drury the observation that the final line of "Love III", "So I did sit and eat", also refers to the fact that celebrants could take communion sitting as well as kneeling.
It is this sort of detail that so illuminates both Drury's account of the work and the life which produced it. Herbert's early life was that of the well-connected, cultivated upper classes. He was a precocious scholar, gifted in music and languages, and was taught at Westminster School by Lancelot Andrewes, the great sermonist who headed one of the committees responsible for the King James translation of the Bible. But the young Herbert's was always a highly-wrought sensibility, both emotional and physical, and for most of his life he suffered from an ill health that may well have been psychosomatic.
He lost his father at three and Drury is delicate about Herbert's relationship with his mother, Magdalen Herbert, an attachment that in cruder hands might have provoked some anachronistic psychologising. Nonetheless it is reasonable to speculate that his devout and outspoken mother's place in George's affections as well as nourishing his spiritual life had a role in his late marriage (though I was pleased to discover from Drury that Herbert's wife was thought a sexy piece as well as a good woman).
George's innate talents and aristocratic background meant his social progress was assured. He admired James I, our most scholarly monarch, and the admiration was mutual. He might reasonably have expected court preferment after his appointment in the prestigious role of Public Orator at Cambridge, which tested his nerves as well as his exemplary Latin. That he was disappointed in worldly advancement becomes the stuff of some of his most compelling poems of self-analysis, notably the five fine poems collectively called "Affliction".
Drury's account of this complex and self-critical character is far more captivating than the undramatic arc of the life would suggest. It is full of moving detail, as well as robust common sense, for example Herbert's observation to his brother re their three orphaned nieces, whose care he took over, "For the time of breeding is the time of doing children good; and not, as many who think they have done fairly, if they leave them a good portion after their decease".
But it's in the analysis of the poems that Drury excels. Gifted as Herbert was at Latin, his instincts were demotic and his hallmark a commitment to plain-speaking Anglo Saxon language. "Shepherds are honest people, let them sing," he declares in "Jordan I", one of the few poems Drury doesn't tackle. Altogether, this is a terrific book about a remarkable poet of unusual psychological intelligence and rare spiritual purity.
Salley Vickers's novel 'The Cleaner of Chartres' is published by Penguin